Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism

Reviewed by Evelyn

Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism. Re-issued with new introductions (London: Merlin Press, 2013)

Cuddling, Huddling, and Muddling Through

Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism has a notable history. Its authors, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright are well-established figures of British Second Wave feminism. They are also “libertarian” or utopian New Leftists of the 1950s and/or 60s, scholars, and lifelong social activists. Rowbotham and Segal teach at universities (Manchester and London respectively), and Wainwright, a founder of Red Pepper magazine, remains one of its editors.

The original 1979 edition was self-published and quickly sold out its 2000 copies. The second run caused a furor. Explaining their own rejection of socialist orthodoxies and recounting their own experiences with New Left feminist activism, the authors provoked a major debate within British socialism––not over original Marxian theory, but rather over how to proceed with socialist transformation, and their book influenced activists internationally. When Rowbotham quotes the Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai complaining in 1921 of comrades who consider it “necessary to jump heavily on anyone who says anything that is at all new. . . building every molehill into a ‘deviation’,” we hear the authors’ argument: A dogmatic and hidebound male hierarchy has controlled socialist parties from the start; New Left feminists offer a far better model.

Beyond the Fragments directly challenged Trotsky-Leninist socialists of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over their centralized organization, modeled after Lenin’s party “vanguard,” which was, unsurprisingly, male-dominated. As feminist socialists, their original argument (to which they still subscribe today) was that after the failures of the Old Left and the challenges of the New Left and the black and women’s liberation movements, the British socialists should take a page from activist feminists like themselves, relinquish their “vanguard” vertical organization and replace it with a more personalized, horizontal, organic, grassroots one. They should open up, democratize, operate locally, and engage emotionally in going to the people. Furthermore, they should encourage an “autonomous” women’s movement and possibly other autonomous factions under their tent. Rowbotham also complains that the SWP’s Leninist emphasis on “worker” control excludes women working in the family “just as it excludes other groups that are not on the cash nexus;” pointing out an inherent problem in party conceptualization. The message, while harsh at times, is also one of inclusivity and coalition politics.

The new edition reprints the original, in which Segal and Wainwright added their own essays to a longer polemic by Rowbotham, and also includes lengthy new introductions by each author as well as Wainwright’s original introduction. Their recommendations to radicals––an unstructured, on-the-ground, adaptive or even anarchic approach, typical of the New Left––make them organizational foremothers of many of today’s spontaneous political actions, though neither they nor anyone else could have conceived the possibilities offered activists by the technological change of the last two decades. Occupy, recently in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the Arab Spring, the G8 protests, as well as the more centrist fair-trade production projects have all responded to the global winner-take-all economy, gaining media and public notice without any strong central leadership or political affiliation.

At the time of the original printing, Rowbotham, an acolyte of E.P. Thompson, was already a well-known Marxist-feminist and social theorist having written pathbreaking essays of feminist history as well as pamphlets and books, including Women’s Liberation and a New Politics (1969), Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973), Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), and Hidden from History (1973). Her original essay in Fragments reviews her negative experiences with the organized British left in the previous two decades, and compares those to her positive experiences with feminism. In her extensive critique, Rowbotham notes that following the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s speech on Stalin’s crimes, the mass exodus from the Communist Party compelled Trotskyist groups (the International Socialists and then the SWP) to allow some factions voice. Yet the parties still held onto “democratic centralism,” a revision of Lenin’s idea of a party vanguard, imagining it as “a neutral form that can be adapted in a non-Stalinist context organization.” Influenced by Wini Breines’ concept of “prefigurative politics,” Rowbotham insists (correctly in my view) that “the form in which you choose to organize is not neutral,” and warns that imposing conformity alienates talent.

As a feminist historian, Rowbotham duly reminds us of First Wave feminists––Sylvia Pankhurst, Margaret Sanger, Stella Browne, Emma Goldman––but in this book her attention is on the recent history of the British Old Left and the longer history of the Leninist faction, which unlike its American cousin was still breathing in 1979. Rowbotham describes feminists suffering split loyalties. Since Trotskyist and Leninist theory made centralized decisions final, bloc members found themselves left with the stark choice to either “get out of the organization (which seems from within to be leaving socialist politics itself), to ignore the center ... or to accept the line.” Such was “a political ideology which sanctions accepting party discipline more than helping to develop the self-activity of other people.” Presenting feminism and feminists as uniquely equipped to offer that help, Lynne Segal writes, “while the traditional left was slow to realize the anti-capitalist nature of women’s liberation, feminists were able to show that it was the unpaid work done by women in reproducing labor power and servicing the work force” that sustained capitalism. As the slogan said, “Women in labor, keep capitalists in power.” That seems less obvious today, since capitalism has easily absorbed them into the paid labor market.

In rejecting “stagism” (the idea that women’s full liberation required the class revolution), Segal continues, “We argued that our struggle against male domination, patriarchy, was as central as the struggle against class oppression,” and asserts that feminists had moved beyond even the libertarians in developing “new theories of the welfare state.” Due to the marginalization of women’s issues, and their own consciousness-raising, they developed new forms of organizing––personal, leaderless, local. Since most of the organized left was “not interested,” women in these circles thus developed an independent feminist culture of politics, poetry, music and film.

Though the book is a political critique of political organization, the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s pops through, expressed most openly by Segal. She recounts her odyssey from Libertarian socialist in Sydney in the later ‘60s to her migration to London as a single mother, and the enthusiastic construction of her life as free-spirited activist communally bringing up her son. As New Leftists and feminists, they resist the very idea of centralized party discipline, yet desire a coordinated network. Believing as Wainwright says, “that we make the path by walking,” the book aligned with those who would “take action themselves, drawing pragmatically on whatever institutional resources are available, improvising collective hybrid solutions in their own circumstances and then making wider connections.” The authors maintain that their feminism offered a novel style of politics which at its best “prefigured” the utopian community that was its object––one that respected individual opinion and shared experiences and offered personal support, which they unabashedly call “love.” Segal also reiterates the Lawrence textile mill strikers’ spirited demand for “bread, and roses too.” In describing her experience establishing two women’s centers, founding The Islington Gutter Press and working with spontaneous independent groups such as Big Flame, she also details their conflicts and dissolutions. All three authors are too self-critical to blame these endings entirely on capitalism or even patriarchy, but admit them as problems endemic to the difficult ethics and mixed memberships of their feminist and activist groups.

In her original section “Moving Beyond the Fragments,” Hilary Wainwright attempts to focus on the day’s predicament, the rise of Thatcher and Thatcherism, warning of challenges ahead, and urging socialists to make common cause with and renovate the Labour Party. Admitting the conservatism and inertia of Labour, its capture by entrenched union leaders, and the general difficulties of a coalition built of widely disparate views, Wainwright still argued that “fragmented movements and campaigns are that much weaker without this political focus and back-up.” And she shrewdly noted that powerful Tory opposition and a weak center of resistance rather than uniting socialists had actually dispersed them. “In effect, left-wing trades councils, socialist resource centres, socialist women’s groups, theatre groups, left bookshops, militant shop stewards’ committees often carry out, in sum, the functions of a socialist party but without the coordination and long term perspectives of a party. It is as if the different parts of a piece of cloth––a political organization––were being woven creatively and with ad hoc contact between the weavers, but without anyone having a master plan.”

Writing as experienced activists and mature leftists, the authors chose a title expressing hope for some cohesion and coordination on the left (they are still hoping). Then as now, Rowbotham, Segal and Wainwright consider themselves socialists. They acknowledge that without a viable social theory of the whole and a larger influential organization, all factions could be cut off from any self-determination whatsoever by the forces of global capitalism.

Any regrets are directed not at the authors’ earlier positions, but at their having underestimated the forces that would soon be arrayed against the left. With the rhetorical appeal of a counter-culture and the demography of a generation behind them, New Leftists had achieved some real success with their grassroots methods. And there can be no doubting the energy and imagination involved in starting women’s centers and free presses, disrupting the Miss World contest, supporting strikers at Trico, fighting missiles at Greenham, organizing the Hounslow Hospital “work-ins,” creating a group like Big Flame, or working with the Greater London Council, and not least writing, speaking and helping to grow a larger, recognized Women’s Liberation Movement. But they never anticipated the powerful and well-financed rightist reaction in the UK and US, and the ebbing of social services by endless budget and tax cutting, while private wealth skyrocketed. Though each author still finds reasons to be cheerful in this dismal situation (with Occupy Wall Street in the US, Greenham and UK-Uncut in the UK, and Syriza in Greece), they have little choice but to admit that with some exceptions, the right has won almost all the economic wars of the last three decades, and that women and workers have been the big losers.

By now it is a historical cliché to note that the personally transfiguring methods of the New Left liberalized culture and lifestyle across classes, rather than threatening the entrenched inequities of capitalism. The personal became political, yet not as a reciprocal relation. As I write, the US government has “shut down” over a modest universal healthcare plan that requires some insurance industry reform. The goal of comprehensive material support for all workers, women, and children, today appears as in a convex mirror––both nearer and further than it was in 1979. Segal notes that the commodification of the sexual revolution “should have been my first lesson that change ... when it arrives is never quite in the form you hoped, and so struggles must begin again.”

So the question that remains is, was the authors’ advice on organizational method wise? Their descriptions and praise of both the New Left and the feminists’ spontaneous local projects never resolve the problem of a “tyranny of structurelessness” described in the 1970s by Jo Freeman, who warned of unplanned hierarchies of talent, friendship and ambition in opposition movements. A recent article by the Australian historian Jeska Rees (cited by Segal) describes the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1978 as already riven by multiple factions––liberal feminists seeking parity within capitalism, post-colonial feminists and those of color, feminists who found pornography, rape, and abuse at the core of heterosexual structures, theoretical purists (radical feminists), and those revolutionary feminists who wished to shun all males––poised against socialist, social-welfare, utopian feminists like Rowbotham, Segal, and Wainwright.

Nor did Rowbotham et al offer much answer for the concerns of their day’s active socialists, such as Duncan Hallas or more pertinently, Elizabeth Wilson, who saw factionalism and division on the left potentially creating tiny nihilistic “ghettoes” that would neglect issues of taking power. The authors are equally cool to the fatalistic post-structuralist theorists who followed them, and while admitting the importance of their constituencies, they leave the post-colonialists and gender constructivists such as Spivak or Butler unmentioned in their new introductions. So, in criticizing the socialists, to which choir were they preaching?

No doubt their point needed making. According to Terry Eagleton, the Trotskyists-Leninists in Britain were themselves a faction no closer to taking power than any other. In imagining themselves a vanguard responsible for the organization of a revolution, they wasted energy quashing dissidence. But while the Fragments authors would challenge them and promote their own friendlier feminist methods, their quasi-universalistic feminism couldn’t fully speak to feminists coming up right behind them. And in that, their book is more another nail in the coffin of a long-splintering leftism than it is an assertion of a new kind of unifying feminism.

In trying to get the socialists on the one hand and the Labour Party on the other to accommodate women’s needs––economic parity, education and full health- and childcare––Rowbotham, Segal, and Wainwright demanded power, but saw themselves as doing so in an egalitarian, personally sensitive manner. Their political approach presumed not merely interest but virtue––a virtue expressed by participatory democratic forms. Likeable, enthusiastic, and admirable as all the authors are––Segal exudes a joyful spirit that complements Rowbotham’s historical temperament and Wainwright writes with a journalist’s clarity and command of recent events––this hopeful moralizing often substitutes for any coherent political strategy, an elision Rowbotham keeps defending. Wainwright’s program to work with Labour proved unsuccessful as it helped to divide that party further and doom it to a series of grim defeats. She suggests that their feminism offered an “ecology of participation,” but we never learn here what their unfragmented socialism looks like beyond an attitude, or how the economy should actually be restructured.

Establishing the women’s centers and all their other activities merits respect for the efforts expended, their successes, and the actual help individuals received. Rowbotham and fellow feminists’ reclamation of women’s history and subjectivity overall made for a different, arguably better world than the one they found. At moments, they attracted significant attention to women’s and workers’ needs, but that things improved nationally may have been due less to their personal, experimental style of activism than to what Rowbotham admits was the period’s “widespread assumption that society as a whole was connected to and partly responsible for the well-being of individuals.”

Thatcher and Reagan’s well-financed machines proved adept at prying the electorate loose from holistic assumptions by crafting appeals to an alternative political morality and drawing together new coalitions. Since they were able to reinforce their power with foreign policy adventures, massive firings of strikers, the privatization of public wealth, and the destruction of oppositional institutions such as the Greater London Council, playing them simultaneously as bald impositions of power and media spectacles, there was little to do but attempt to start more small activities, now with less confidence. The academic withdrawal into theory merely reflected the dissolution and disillusion. Over here we recognize the scenario.

Reviewed by Evelyn Burg LaGuardia Community College, CUNY